Does the phrase "dawned on me" actually have a tense or is it just an expression?

"I know why you have been unable to do it. The reason is that it is physically impossible for you. It dawned on me just now."

See, if it does have a tense, I don't think this sentence makes sense, since "it dawned on me" at one point but I'm explaining reasons for being incapable in present tense. I think this sentence sounds like it dawned on me while I was explaining my reasoning, which couldn't have happened, right?

Another sentence:

"It dawned on me that the reason you have been unable to do it is that it is physically impossible for you."

Like the first example, this doesn't make sense if "dawned on me" has a tense, right? Should I correct this to "It dawned on me that the reason you had been unable to do it was that it was physically impossible for you."

Is this correct at all? I don't even know where I should begin to fix it:

"It dawned on me that the fact that he lives there didn't bother me at all."

Please help!

1 Answer 1


Of course dawned on me has a tense - it's just that in practice it's usually past, for the same reason we tend to speak of realising things in the past (you can't know something until you know it). But it can be...

It dawns on me that...
(or more rarely)
it is dawning on me that...
It will dawn on you that...
It would dawn on me that...
etc., etc.

It seems to me OP's confusion stems from the fact that s/he expects some grammatical connection between when you realise something and the timeframe(s) of the thing(s) involved in the realisation. There is no such connection, obviously. It might dawn on you tomorrow that the universe began 15B years ago, or it might have dawned on you yesterday that it will end 15B years from now.

In the case of OP's final example...

It dawned on me that the fact that he lives there didn't bother me at all."

...there's some semantic justification for saying dawned and didn't would normally be the same tense, simply because the realisation and the lack of concern would often be concurrent. But it might be what's dawned on you is you will not be bothered at some time in the future (even though you might have been bothered when you realised this, and you might still be bothered when making the observation later).

Other possible temporal relationships between the three highlighted verbs are also perfectly credible. What dawns on you may be that you are not bothered now (or will not be bothered in the future, or would not be bothered in a hypothetical scenario) about the fact that he will/might live there.

  • Whew, that was a difficult concept to grasp. I'm not sure if really got it, though. So basically, I shouldn't be tied to the sequence of tenses and matching tenses, and just say what I want to convey? If my last example is credible, would you say my first two sentences are credible as well?
    – jess
    May 24, 2013 at 4:44
  • So "it dawned on me that the fact that he lived there didn't bother me at all" is correct as well, but conveys a different meaning? Then is this true for other constructions such as "he said it was okay"--this is correct even though the "okay" is still valid? And "he said it is okay" is correct as well?
    – jess
    May 24, 2013 at 4:48
  • In many contexts it makes no difference whether you say "He says it is okay", "He says it will be okay", "He said it is okay", "He said it will be okay". When you're telling someone what someone else said, it's often perfectly reasonable to report this in the present tense - to someone else, he might as well be saying it now, if the authorisation being passed along is relevant to the current situation rather than the past. May 24, 2013 at 14:21
  • So, does a similar rule apply to phrases like "should have"? 1) "She should have told you the reason why she is taking so long." 2) "He probably got scared because he knew he should have finished his homework sooner." I tried to come up with sentences that use different tenses and I think they could be correct if they are individual "clauses" with no real temporal relationship.
    – jess
    May 31, 2013 at 5:11
  • @jess: Should have references an obligation that existed in the past, but by implication no longer applies for some reason. Without have, it's an obligation that [still] applies at time of speaking (or future, as in "When we send a manned mission to Mars, we should avoid contaminating the landing site with empty champagne bottles after the touchdown celebratory party"). May 31, 2013 at 13:46

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